School’s Out: How Singapore Keeps University Reserved for the Elites


The Singapore government’s recent revelation that it wants to restrict two-thirds of its citizenry from receiving public university education has generated a strong reaction among its population.

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said at the 47th St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland last Thursday that the government wants to cap the “proportion of graduates in a cohort at about 30 to 40 percent,” Singapore’s broadsheet The Straits Times reported him as saying.

The government has not admitted this plan in the past – at least not publicly, but such a mind-set was already prevailing within the government.

The only inkling Singaporeans had of the government’s agenda was in 2011 when in a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable leak it was reported that an Assistant Director of the Planning Division at the Ministry of Education (MOE) Cheryl Chan was to have said in 2007 that, “the government does not plan to encourage more students to get a higher education.

“The university enrolment rate will continue to be maintained at 20-25 percent because the Singaporean labor market does not need everyone to get a four-year degree,” she was reported to have said.

The WikiLeaks cable also said: “Only 23 percent of Singaporean students entering primary school complete a degree at a local four-year university [in 2007]. In other knowledge-economies such as Japan’s, around 50 percent of students complete a university degree.”

It caused an uproar at that time.

Placating the populace

In an attempt to appease Singaporeans, MOE responded on its Facebook by saying: “we wish to clarify that the WikiLeaks cable on higher education enrolment is outdated. [In 2011], the Singapore government provides publicly-funded university places for 26% of the P1 [primary one] cohort (a university Cohort Participation Rate (CPR) of 26%). We are on track to achieve 30% CPR by 2015.”

MOE’s response said two things. First, it acknowledged the WikiLeaks cable, which indirectly meant that what the leak said is true. Second, MOE did not deny curtailing the proportion of Singaporeans that it wants to allow into local public universities.

In any case, Ong has affirmed that now.

In order to placate the populace at that time, the government started announcing plans to open up more university places for more Singaporeans.

In October 2011, soon after the public outrage spurred by the WikiLeaks cables, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in parliament: “we are widening access to higher education; particularly university places, where we have 25 percent, going on to 30, of each cohort in state universities.”


In 2012, at the National Day Rally 2012, Lee announced again: “we can increase the current full time university intake […] by 2020. […] That would mean 40 percent of each cohort will go to university, up from 27 percent today.”

In 2010, Singapore’s CPR was 25 percent. This increased to 26 percent in 2011, 27 percent in 2012, 30 percent in 2014 and 32 percent in 2015.

In 2015, MOE told The Straits Times that, “it was on track to reach the target CPR of 40 percent by 2020.”

But with news from Ong that the government’s agenda is to limit Singaporeans’ participation in local public universities to only “about 30 to 40 percent,” would the government now go back on its word? Would the government’s plan still be to increase the CPR to 40 percent and maintain it at that level, or will the CPR be reduced back to 30 percent after 2020?

If the government’s plan was to present a façade to give Singaporeans a semblance of hope, Ong’s latest announcement put the nail in the coffin to any such hopes. 10 years after the WikiLeaks exposé of Chan’s comment, Singaporeans now know for certain that it seems to be the government’s intention all along to restrict the majority of them from receiving higher education in public universities, and that the government’s agenda has not changed for at least the past 10 years.

Ong’s explanation for limiting the number of students from reaching higher education in public universities was to ensure that there would be “no glut of graduates in Singapore, and [to keep] graduate unemployment low,” The Straits Times reported.

But social commenter and past president of Singapore’s Society of Financial Service Professionals Leong Sze Hian commented on his blog: “Here’s what continues to baffle me – the logic of capping Singaporean graduates at say 30 percent because there may not be enough jobs – and then having about 35 percent of the total student enrolment in our public universities for non-Singaporeans.”

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